Challenge Accepted!

Yesterday felt a little bit like the first day of school. Now, just to be clear, I haven’t been enrolled in formal education since 2011, although I have taken a few classes and web-based trainings since. But after attending K-12th grade and then moving through college and grad school, the feeling of the first day of school is all-too-familiar. Quite often, there was the nearly sleepless night before the big day. There was frequent checking of my alarm. I couldn’t oversleep because then I would miss the bus or be late. The nervous flutters were present along with pressing questions: What would my classes be like? Would the homework be hard? Would I have a good connection with my teachers? Would I make any new friends? It was the unknown of what waited on the horizon that characterized that first-day-of-school feeling.

Yesterday wasn’t the first day of school, but some of the emotions and nervous jitters were definitely present. We were re-opening our church in a limited capacity after being closed down for nearly three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We had been pre-recording our services and releasing them to our website and YouTube, so the church was definitely still up and running, but we didn’t have the usual level of activity in our building. On a typical service recording day, it would just be me, the associate pastor, the senior pastor, the administrative assistant, and our audio/visual tech. We maintained social distancing and limited in-person contact. In fact, I mainly worked from home and only came into the office on the days we recorded.

But yesterday, we entered a new phase of ministry, and I think my nerves mirrored the way I felt when I first started leading worship in 2009. I knew there would be people in the pews, but I had no idea if I would be able to hear them singing behind their masks. We would be doing two services instead of just one, and that was also something to consider. It would be an early call time for sound check and a long morning. I had all the protocol and the schedule in front of me, but there was so much unknown until I would actually experience this first day of phase one re-opening. I was nervous but I was up for the challenge.

In many ways, the past three months had prepared me and the rest of our staff for this new reality. I think I can say that none of us had ever walked through anything like it before. We were in uncharted territory. There were no instructional manuals entitled “How to Lead a Congregation through a Worldwide Pandemic.” We had to figure things out as we went along. There were a lot of prayers, tears, and hopeful hearts as we led into the week of March 16 up until June 7. We delved into technology. We asked difficult questions and sometimes had to settle for not having the answers. We prayerfully pursued guidance from the Holy Spirit. I spent hours at the piano, intentionally selecting music for our services. Our staff, particularly Pastor Tim, examined the Scriptures and studied intently in order to share the Word with our congregation.

Although there was nothing routine about our circumstances, we began to build a schedule and a semblance of routine anyway. Fridays began to feel like Sundays, because that is when we recorded our services. Weekly phone calls quite often took the place of in-office meetings. Emails replaced network file sharing. We were only together on Fridays, but in some ways, our communication and connectedness was stronger than it had ever been before. I smile at the memory of one service recording in early April. It was snowing and blowing outside, but we had just recorded our Palm Sunday service and there was an element of festivity in the air. The staff and our pastor’s wife sat in various pews throughout the nearly empty sanctuary and planned out how we would proceed through Holy Week. There was joking, fun, and camaraderie. There was nothing normal about our socially distant staff meeting, but if the past few weeks had taught us anything, it was a welcome moment in the midst of the unknown.

I don’t consider it a coincidence that I purchased recording equipment just before the start of this pandemic. I never knew that this Spring would find me recording music for weddings and worship services, when I thought I would mainly be recording demos for songs I wrote during my songwriting class. It was a crash course in music production, and I was far from prepared for the workload in front of me. But if you know me at all, it won’t surprise you when I confess that I like a good challenge. If I have time and the necessary resources to really explore something, I quite often jump in with two feet. But I need hands-on orientation, or the challenge becomes more of a frustration. My mother can attest to the moments of frustration and overwhelm in my late teen years as I began to consider moving out on my own. She was a busy mother of four, and there were certain tasks she couldn’t just demonstrate for me while I watched. I needed to do the work, hands-on with strong verbal instructions. She didn’t have the patience to deal with my stubborn independence, so when I turned eighteen, I was sent to an independent living school for the visually impaired.

Even now, I look back at some of the skills and perspective I gained from my time at the independent living school, and I’m grateful for the training I received. Although sometimes it might be easy to give up and walk away from a challenge, it doesn’t result in any movement forward. Sometimes, if you want to get somewhere or learn something, you have to stick with it for the long-haul, much like our experience in leading worship through COVID-19.

It was while I was recording one day that this all came together— the challenge, the struggle, and the choice to either give up or press into it. I had just finished the piano and lead vocal parts for a practice demo, and it was time to add the vocal harmonies. Everything went really smoothly, and it wasn’t long before I had exported my completed recording to my computer. I listened to the track critically as it was being finalized. There was a little glitch near the end, but I was willing to let it go because it wasn’t worth tweaking one of the harmonies just to smooth over such a brief patch. After all, it wasn’t like I was going to release the song professionally.

I was surprised that I wasn’t more inclined to go back and fix that little spot in the back-up vocals. My perfectionism had taken a backseat, and that wasn’t normal for me. But I should have known this passive perspective wouldn’t last for long. I was making dinner while listening to the finished track on my phone, and I found myself cringing at the one trouble spot in the harmony line. For some reason, it was really pronounced and obvious on my tinny phone speaker. I got out my headphones and listened to the spot that way, and although I could hear the dissonance, it wasn’t so obvious. But as soon as I listened without the headphones, I was cringing all over again. Now it was driving me crazy and I had to get to the bottom of it.

So I set my equipment up again and meticulously listened to each line of the track: first the piano, then the lead vocal, and then each harmony. I listened for a wrong note or if something was flat or sharp. Then I found it when listening to the highest harmony part. It clashed with the lowest harmony part, and there were times when both voices should have lined up in octaves. But the pitches were not matching, and it was so obvious to me when the parts were isolated from the other track lines. I knew what I needed to do: record both the lowest and highest harmony lines again. I groaned when I thought of the work ahead of me, but I knew the music would be incomplete without the fine-tuning and extra effort. So I focused in and got it done. The relief and accomplishment that came with the finished product was well worth the challenge and struggle.

I felt similar emotions yesterday as we met for in-person worship for the first time in nearly three months. The hard work and intentionality had been worth all of the effort that had been expended. At our first service, I nearly gave in to tears when I heard nearly 20 voices raised with mine in corporate worship. It was even more noticeable at the second service when there were more than thirty of us in the room. It had been so long since I had led worship with a live crowd present. There was so much more to consider beyond the music— hand sanitizer, face masks, social distancing, and the added precautions and restrictions in the building— but the music and the preaching of the Word were constants in the ever-evolving season of COVID-19.

It will probably be a long time before we can all worship together at one time in the same room, but yesterday was a start— a first day of school of sorts as we continue to navigate these uncharted waters. We have a long way to go and I’m sure there will be many more challenges on the horizon, but I am willing to move forward, even if it means digging in and isolating one factor at a time. Its meticulous work but well worth it in the end.

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